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Posted: 12:00 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 20, 2012

Personal Journeys

The Renegade Preacher

Andy Stanley quit his father's fold, tossed out tradition and built one of the biggest mega-churches in America.

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Personal Journeys: The Renegade Preacher photo
When Andy Stanley delivers the sermon at North Point Community Church in Alpharetta, his words are heard not only by the 4,700 or so parishioners in the sanctuary, but by tens of thousands of others who watch a real-time videocast at four other campuses.
Personal Journeys: The Renegade Preacher photo
Andy Stanley, senior pastor of North Point Community Church, delivers a keynote address during the Catalyst Conference 2012 at Gwinnett Arena.
Personal Journeys: The Renegade Preacher photo
Rick Holliday, Special
Andy was an accomplished pianist and wanted to become a musician. "I prayed to God that he wouldn't," said his father, Charles, "and I won."
Personal Journeys: The Renegade Preacher photo
"He was very gentlemanly," says Sandra Stanley, Andy's wife, about their early dates. They met when she was a college junior and he was a youth minister. "He was fun and funny -- I would be laughing so hard my stomach would hurt."

By Bo Emerson

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Andy Stanley generally wears sports shirts and jeans when he preaches. But when he spoke at First Baptist last month to observe his father Charles Stanley’s 80th birthday, the father didn’t just pray that the son would wear something nice. He bargained. “What if I buy you a suit?” he asked.

Said the son, “Now you’re talking.”

Vatican II it wasn’t, but the meeting of the two Atlanta ministers on the dais of First Baptist bridged two of the most storied religious careers in Atlanta’s history. It also demonstrated that old hurts do, in time, heal.

Here was Charles Stanley, the leader of one of the biggest Baptist church in Atlanta, the man who was twice president of the Southern Baptist Convention, founder of a worldwide evangelism TV network through In Touch Ministries, and for a time Atlanta’s most influential preacher.

Standing next to him was his only son. Seventeen years earlier, Andy Stanley quit his father’s church during perhaps the most controversial moment in its history: the public divorce of his mother and his father.

Charles Stanley’s divorce, tantamount to a sin in his conservative congregation, led to a schism between father and son that ultimately took years to mend. And over that time, another transformation quietly took place: the son eclipsed the father.

Taking his ministry in a radically different direction from the church in which he was raised, Andy Stanley, 54, has now surpassed Charles Stanley in power and influence.

About 30,000 congregants attend the five campuses of Andy Stanley’s North Point Community Church every week, making it, by some measures, the second biggest church in the country, just behind Joel Osteen’s mammoth congregation in Houston.

North Point has more than quadrupled First Baptist in attendance. And North Point’s worldwide footprint keeps growing, with more than 31 “strategic partner” churches from Athens to Estonia that use North Point’s message and curricula.

Andy Stanley assured the First Baptist congregation gathered for his father’s birthday that he became what he is with the benefit of his “ringside seat,” as Charles Stanley’s eldest child and a one-time associate pastor at First Baptist.

“So much of what I am today I owe to you,” he said to his dad.

But the younger Stanley’s success came with a cost. Before founding North Point, he found himself in a bitter struggle with his father. The way Andy tells it in his new book, “Deep & Wide: Creating Churches Unchurched People Love to Attend,” it was a fight that nearly broke his father’s heart — and his father’s church.

As he told the thousands who came to celebrate his father, “Sometimes, a leader has to stand alone.”

2. Dancing with Jesus at North Point Church

The house lights go down, the stage lights come up, and here comes the boom. With the thudding downbeat of the bass drum, some 4,700 souls leap up in the darkness, their upraised hands caught in the beams of computerized spotlights sweeping overhead.

At North Point, the music plays the congregation. The kick drum explodes against the sternum; the electric bass makes the backbone ring like a tuning fork.

The song is “How Great Thou Art,” but this amplified version, with its crashing crescendos, goes far beyond Elvis. It’s a full-body rush, as invigorating as Springsteen at Philips Arena.

“Andy’s church has this wild, very loud, wonderful music, which turns some people off,” said Sharon Meyer, 58, who has been attending North Point since before construction of the Alpharetta facility. “I really love it… I know it’s stupid-sounding, but when I’m singing, I’m thinking I’m up there dancing with Jesus.”

After the music, Andy Stanley steps onto the stage to deliver the sermon, a conservative message in a rock ’n’ roll wrapper. Homosexuality is sinful, but homosexuals are welcome. Divorce is against God’s will, but Andy knows plenty of folks who are divorced, including his father. Andy’s image is captured by a Panasonic high definition television camera (originally developed for NASA) and sent through fiber optic cables to four other North Point “campuses,” in Buckhead, Canton, Duluth and Cumming.

The production crew at North Point takes great pains to tailor this broadcast so the sound and image of Stanley’s sermon mesh seamlessly with the local music and worship events at each campus, even sculpting the reverb so that the “large-hall” sound of Stanley’s voice, recorded in the bigger North Point sanctuary, is blended to match the smaller venues in Duluth and Canton.

The goal of this high-tech firepower, which costs a significant fraction of the church’s estimated $40 million-plus budget, is to unify the five campuses into a single organism, so that all are experiencing the service together. But it is also to deliver Andy Stanley to the audience that craves him, because this skinny guy with the machine-gun delivery is the breath and life and vision behind North Point.

3. He just wanted to sing like Elton John

North Point, insists Andy Stanley, is more than Andy Stanley, but he is the one in charge. And he’ll enumerate the reasons. (He likes making lists.) “There are two reasons,” he says, sitting in a gray-carpeted office at the North Point Ministries headquarters, a faceless office park near the main church campus. His uniform on this Tuesday afternoon is the same as ever: blue jeans, open-collared shirt.

“Number one: I got here first, it was my idea. And number two: I’m a good public speaker.” Other than that, he says, “I’m terrible, in terms of pure pastoring. I’m not a good pastor. I’m not good at hospitals. I’m not good at weddings. I’m awkward at funerals. I’m uncomfortable.”

He didn’t actually plan to be a pastor. He planned to be Elton John. As a teenager at Tucker High School, he pounded keyboards in a variety of bands, including one with a younger guitar phenom named Brendan O’Brien, who went on to produce records by Bruce Springsteen, among others. He even banged out Elton John tunes on the piano in the First Baptist sanctuary during off hours.

Stanley has often sermonized about an episode from his junior year in high school when he wanted to see Elton John perform at the Omni on a Sunday night — a night when good Baptists are in church — and asked his father for permission.

His father told him to pray about it, insisting that God had a plan for him and it was up to him to find out what that plan was. “So I prayed,” the son says. “And I didn’t hear God say ‘no.’”

That trip to the Omni notwithstanding, the younger Stanley seemed bound to follow in his father’s footsteps, serving as a leader in a Georgia State University fellowship group and studying at Dallas Theological Seminary. He waited impatiently for “the call” to the Lord. Not hearing it, he volunteered.

He was working for his father, serving as youth minister at First Baptist when the deacons put the church’s 17-acre property on Peachtree Street in Midtown up for sale, with the intent of moving farther north. They bought a parcel of Dunwoody property, just outside the Perimeter, previously owned by the Avon cosmetics company.

When a $62 million offer for the Midtown property fell through, the deacons decided to set up a satellite operation at the Avon warehouse to absorb some of the overcrowding, and asked Andy Stanley to oversee it.

4. A church divided, a family in turmoil

The warehouse in Dunwoody “was raw,” said Bill Willits, a member of the original team sent to the northern campus. But it was exactly the briar patch that suited Andy Stanley. He’d been studying casual, youth-ministry-type services for years, first in Bible study groups led by Dan Dehaan, then at the Willow Creek church in Chicago, which he visited in the early ’90s.

The new location gave Andy and his team a chance to try it out. There would be a band, with drums and amplifiers, but no suits and ties, no organ, no choir, no robes. “We were giddy,” writes Andy Stanley in “Deep & Wide.”

The satellite church opened on Easter in 1992. Within months thousands were attending and there were traffic jams as folks tried to turn onto North Peachtree Road from I-285.

In the meantime, the First Baptist campus in Midtown was roiled by controversy when Charles Stanley was served divorce papers by his wife Anna. (Andy says he’d seen problems in the marriage years before.) Church policy forbade divorced men from serving as deacons or ministers. Charles resigned from administrative duties, but a faction of the church was demanding that he step down as senior pastor.

Many members of that faction were attending services at the north campus, creating the sense that Andy was leading the charge. And in fact, Andy suggested that his father step down.

Why? It would give the congregation a chance to reject the offer and voice their support for a preacher who might well get divorced, Andy writes. “I assured him that the congregation of FBA was not about to let him go anywhere.”

But, writes Stanley, “my dad didn’t hear anything past the word ‘resign.’”

“I didn’t fully understand what his motivation was,” said Charles Stanley in a telephone interview. “It appeared to me that he was splitting the church.”

The tension between father and son escalated to the point that they sought counseling together. They had a shouting match in Andy’s driveway. Rumors ran rampant. They said, variously, that Andy was trying to take over the church; Charles was trying to force him out; Andy was driving a $100,000 sports car. Congregants imagined a drama worthy of King David and his rebellious son Absalom.

“Any family that has ever gone through a divorce knows what it’s like,” said former First Baptist associate minister Dwight “Ike” Reighard. “But this time the family had several thousand people involved.”

Eventually First Baptist looked like two different churches: a mainline, traditional church in Midtown, and an innovative, contemporary church in Dunwoody, each with its own adherents, each with its own Stanley in charge.

“Problem was, it was the same church,” writes Andy. “And (Charles) was the pastor. And I had become a lightning rod for the folks that thought he should step down.”

Charles Stanley is not a man to be trifled with, said a former member of First Baptist familiar with the Stanley family. “He’s a successful, strong, charismatic leader, but it is his way or the highway.” Events came to a head in August, 1995, when Andy Stanley resigned.

“It was short and sweet,” said Rick Holliday, a First Baptist worship leader at the time, “with plenty of confusion and speculation about why he resigned, and none of it true.” Other leaders left First Baptist around the same time, including Bill Willits and Holliday, now executive director of ministry services at North Point.

Reighard, who left his long-time church, New Hope Baptist in Fayetteville, to run the north campus at First Baptist after Andy resigned, said the mood at the satellite sanctuary was like “a death” had occurred. “I remember standing up that first Sunday, and there a was such a pall over the congregation.”

A group of First Baptist congregants started a campaign to spin the north campus off into a separate church with Andy in charge. Andy politely declined.

He and his wife Sandra had two children in diapers and one on the way, and Andy had quit with no plan in mind. “It was a tough time,” said Sandra Stanley, “but neither of us felt any fear.”

The son marvels now that his father, despite his anger and disappointment, kept asking his son to join him for lunch. “He wanted so badly for the relationship to be good,” said Sandra Stanley. “From where they stood it was almost insurmountable.”

It was at one of those lunches that Andy mentioned he might start a church in Alpharetta. Perhaps with misgivings he did not mention, Charles Stanley announced it from the pulpit at First Baptist. And gave the idea his blessing.

Andy regards that generous spirit with amazement. His blessing? “The wounds were too fresh for him to mean that,” writes Andy Stanley. “He wanted to mean it. Eventually he would mean it. But he loved me. And he knew how important it was for me to know he was behind me.”

This was a turning point in their relationship. Yet even during this detente, they were carefully negotiating terms. Andy didn’t want his new church to interfere with his father’s sphere of influence, so he purposefully located it in the extreme north of the county. Serendipitously, that put him right in the path of the northbound population wave, which would contribute to his success.

That night after his father’s announcement, Andy’s phone started ringing. Within 13 months Andy Stanley and his colleagues would buy 55 acres on North Point Parkway. They broke ground in 1997 and in September 1998, North Point Community Church held its first service in a new brick structure.

Somehow the Stanley family survived having two superstars in its ranks. Today Andy and Charles take turns preaching at each other’s churches.

5. A new church for ‘the unchurched’

On a weekday afternoon in October, Andy walked outside his soaring, traditional, $1.1 million home surrounded by five acres of greenery in the horsey, new community of Milton, to help his mother, Anna, up the driveway. She had come to celebrate her 81st birthday. Anna moved deliberately, with the help of a walker and a private nurse, but looked stylish in a bright cobalt suit.

She paused in the open air to tell a few stories from Andy’s childhood. “He was an easy child,” she said, compared to his younger sister, Becky. But his pet alligator caused her some concern.

Inside, Sandra Stanley prepared Corn Flake-breaded chicken and peach cobbler, a favorite of Anna’s. The kitchen, adorned with marble tiles and granite counters, was as spotless as an operating room theater. Shadow, an aging black lab, slept in a corner, while Khaki, a fuzzy peach King Charles mix, yearned for attention.

Andy and Sandra met when he spoke to her youth fellowship group at Georgia Tech. He resisted asking her for a date for fear of inciting the stereotype of the religious predator, but his friend Gary Niebur, Tech tennis coach and fellowship faculty adviser, insisted Andy call her. “They were a perfect fit,” said Niebur. Sandra, 21, was mature, he said, and Andy, 29, still had some growing up to do. They were married in August 1988 in her hometown of Dublin.

Andy Stanley has recently opened up about his parents’ divorce, a topic he addresses in his book. (It’s the first of his 19 books to do so.) In 1995, speculation about the pending split was rife in the church. But the cause, said Stanley, was none of the usual titillating reasons — neither infidelity nor abuse. It was simply the death of a relationship, he said. And he and his younger sister Becky had seen it coming for years. “They did their best to take two incompatible people and make the marriage work for almost 40 years,” he said.

For his part, Stanley has made his relationship with Sandra, and their three children, Andrew, 20, Garrett, 18 and Allie, 16, central to his life, coming home at 4:30 each day during their growing-up years, and making his family life part of his ministry.

Sandra, 46, shared the North Point stage with Andy during a recent series of sermons called “Future Family,” in which the two offered advice on parenting. “Don’t you think I look better with her up here?” Andy asked the congregation. Cheers answered his question.

They said there are two overriding commandments in their house: “Thou shalt not lie,” and “Honor the mother.” (An example of the scrupulous pursuit of rule No. 2: The Stanley sons must remain standing at the dinner table until the mother is seated.)

Today Andy Stanley’s reach has spread far beyond the walls of his church campuses. His sermons are televised on FamilyNet, the Gospel Music Channel and Daystar, and on NBC affiliates in six markets, including Atlanta, following “Saturday Night Live,” where he is sometimes No. 2 in the time slot. He was singled out by the New York Times as a paragon of modern religious leaders who use Twitter and other social media to reach the flock.

North Point’s 31 partners, in locales such as South Africa, Estonia, Brazil and the Philippines, act like franchises, using North Point curricula and training. In English-speaking countries they download Stanley’s sermons from the web and broadcast them to their congregations.

This year the church raised $2 million for local charities in its “Be Rich” campaign and sent 1,000 congregants around the world on about 65 short-term mission trips.

Stanley has also co-developed a chain of successful leadership conferences, including DRIVE, a training event for church leaders, and Catalyst, a more secular gathering, but with Christian overtones. Stanley addressed 13,000 attendees at the most recent Catalyst gathering, which packed the Gwinnett Arena earlier this month.

His speaking style is casual, humorous and almost always targeted at two different audiences: the faithful and the skeptic. North Point strives to maintain that same balance, always seeking to draw in the “unchurched.” Their market research shows that about 40 percent of weekly attendees haven’t been to church regularly in the past five years; that figure is 50 percent at the Buckhead Church campus.

This dynamic, says Andy, is what keeps a church healthy. “It is grow or die.” Consequently, he frequently talks about the gospel from the viewpoint of a newcomer, stressing pragmatic value, suggesting it be tested for usefulness, not truthfulness.

“You don’t have to be a Christian to try this,” he’ll say. “People don’t care if things are true. People want to know if they work… And none of us are really on a truth quest, we’re on a happiness quest.”

The approach emphasizes “grace,” that salvation is available to all. But it doesn’t abandon “truth,” calling out sin for what it is. “Truth” is a First Baptist hallmark, where a visitor was recently handed a pamphlet warning of eternal torment in a lake of fire.

You might say Andy Stanley has kept the foundation of the First Baptist approach, and in fact, he has. In his living room is a glass-fronted display case, filled with beaded necklaces and headbands from trips to Africa, where North Point supports orphanages and educational programs. On the top shelf are two bricks.

The bricks are pieces of First Baptist. Early in the new century First Baptist Atlanta’s graceful structure on Peachtree was razed. By that time the congregation had moved north to its current location in Dunwoody, taking up residency in the same warehouse building where Andy once preached. Remodeled twice, it is an immense, flat structure with the look of a corporate office building.

It was here that Andy Stanley spoke at his father’s birthday celebration. In a hand-tailored suit. The symbolism of the visit was not lost on the congregation. The son was returning to the same spot, to a church he’d abandoned 17 years earlier, for the first time since telling his story in “Deep & Wide.”

“That was a great healing that took place that morning,” said Charles Stanley.

In that sanctuary were two generations, two leaders at the top of their game, a father and a son, one representing the past and the other the future, standing together on common ground.

IN HIS OWN WORDS

On his father: If God tells you to run your head through a brick wall you start running and trust God to make a hole. That pretty much summarizes how he [Charles Stanley] did ministry.

On the rise in divorce and single parent-hood: In every culture that has embraced Biblical teaching, women and children have done better. And as our nation moves farther away from a Biblical world view, the group that will suffer are women and children.

On North Point’s ambitions: There are lots of churches that plant churches. The unusual thing about us is we plant really big churches, and really expensive churches.

Andy Stanley on Twitter

Don’t trade your future for a bowl of stew.

It is generally guilty people who leverage guilt to get other people to do things.

Do for one what you wish you could do for all.

Fairness is the enemy of rightness…fairness is not a biblical value, fairness ended in the Garden of Eden.

ABOUT THE REPORTER, PHOTOGRAPHER

Bo Emerson is an Atlanta native and a 29-year veteran at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He has been a feature writer for most of his AJC career, covering music, the Olympics and Billy Graham’s last crusade. Emerson is a member of Columbia Presbyterian Church in Decatur, and is married to Maureen Downey who covers education for the AJC. They have four children.

Hyosub Shin was born and raised in Korea. Inspired by the work of National Geographic photographers, he came to the United States about 10 years ago to study photography. Shin has worked at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution since 2007, covering a variety of assignments including the Georgia Legislative session, Atlanta Dream’s Eastern Conference title game, the Atlanta Air Show and the Atlanta Braves’ National League Division Series. Prior to that, he worked at the Korea Times in Los Angeles. He feels lucky to be able to do what he loves and provide valuable information to the community through his camera.

HOW WE GOT THE STORY

Andy Stanley agreed to meet with Emerson after the AJC received galleys of “Deep & Wide: Creating Churches Unchurched People Love to Attend,” a book in which Stanley writes frankly of his rancorous departure from his father’s church, First Baptist. Emerson interviewed Stanley at length, and also spoke with his wife Sandra, his mother Anna and his father Charles. He also attended services at North Point and First Baptist, interviewed many members of the team that founded North Point, and attended a leadership conference at the Gwinnett Arena featuring Stanley as a keynote speaker.

Tell us your personal journey: personaljourneys@ajc.com

Coming next week: When his daughter dies in combat, a father comes undone and his family picks up the pieces.

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